texasmonthly.com: You’ve written six articles about A&M over the past decade. What is it about the school that continually piques your interest?
Paul Burka: In 1997 I went to A&M to write a story about infighting on the board of regents. At the time, my impression of the university was pretty stereotypical: A bunch of guys playing soldier and doing things that made them the butt of Aggie jokes. It didn’t take very long to realize that the real story was not the regents but the academic strength of the university. A&M was a very good university bent on becoming a great one. As I began to delve into the history of the university, I came to see what an amazing place A&M is, and how much the university had to overcome before it could set its sights on greatness.
A&M’s history, as I described it then, has been one in which New Aggies have tried to change A&M for the better and Old Aggies have resisted them at every turn. Old Aggies put tradition and spirit first. They hated the decisions in the sixties to admit women and do away with compulsory membership in the Corps of Cadets; more recently, they hate the idea of emphasizing liberal arts. New Aggies care about tradition and spirit, but they understand that change is necessary if A&M is going to reach its potential. As I did my research, I began to see A&M with insider’s eyes. I saw the phenomenal love that Aggies have for their school, far beyond anything that I have encountered at any other campus. I was impressed by A&M’s service mentality; people there, from administrators to faculty members to students, are dead serious about the mission of service that was behind the original Morrill Act that established land-grant colleges in 1862. Even as A&M has gained in academic stature, it continues to stress intangibles like character and leadership and loyalty. What other major university can say that? A&M is a unique place that long ago outlived its hick-school image. And I have barely scratched the surface of what the place is like.
In subsequent years I returned to write about the Bonfire tragedy, twice—once about the football game against t.u. just eight days after the collapse that cost twelve people their lives, and again a few months later to try to explain what had happened and why. That story was a sad narrative about a tradition that had gone wrong. Bonfire was Old Aggie (or, as they say at A&M, Old Army). The redpots—students who were in charge of building Bonfire—arrogantly refused to listen to engineering professors who warned them that the design of the stack was flawed. The University was oblivious to serious injuries that occurred every year, because Bonfire was all about spirit and delegating responsibility to students. Students were expected to pull twelve hour shifts—never mind classroom responsibilities. The stack violated height rules. Allowing freshmen to work on the stack was another change from past procedures. I can hardly bear to look at the memorial, magnificent though it is, because the accident should never have happened. It is a shame that A&M did not recognize the academic and personal risks that Bonfire required students to take, and I hope that it never comes back to campus in its previous form.
What every writer hopes to do is to penetrate the myths that surround his subject and get to the heart of what it is really like. I hope I have done that at Texas A&M. Certainly I can say that I have been given every opportunity to achieve this goal by the people I have met at Aggieland. I have seen the intensity with which Aggies love their school, and no one could be failed to be impressed by it. What I like best about A&M, as someone who majored in, and has had a lifelong love for, history, is that A&M has been able to change and still somehow retain its uniqueness. And A&M has helped me to understand that stereotypes are sometimes wrong, and often cruel, and to view them with suspicion. A&M is a first-class university and ought to be universally recognized as such.
texasmonthly.com: Did something specific spur you on to write this story at this particular time?
PB: Actually, A&M contacted us. I had written about A&M grappling with change two years ago, a story that many at Texas A&M did not like. I even got one “you’ll never work in this town again” phone call. Most of the complaints were not about the story but about the cover line, “Aggie Hell,” which was tattooed onto the shaved nape of a cadet’s neck. People at A&M thought a real cadet had allowed himself to be defaced and actually tried to identify the traitor. It was a model, of course. As for the story itself, I can only say that I find the issue of change at A&M, and the reaction to it, endlessly fascinating. Where else but A&M would alumni—“former students” at A&M, there being no such thing as an ex-Aggie—object to a goal for A&M to be one of the top public universities by 2020. Aggies fear that eliteness is incompatible with Aggieness. To get back to the genesis of this story, chief marketing officer and vice president for communications Steve Moore called editor Evan Smith to say that president Robert Gates wanted to rebrand A&M and that the new branding campaign would be launched this fall. The rebranding of A&M sounded like a Texas Monthly cover story to Evan and to me, and so I got the assignment. We decided that the best way to do the story was as a profile of Robert Gates.
texasmonthly.com: It seems like you contacted a lot of people connected to the school. How many faculty, alumni, administrators, and students did you interview, and how did you choose them?
PB: I have been fortunate enough to make some good friends at A&M over the years—everybody knows Lane Stephenson in Marketing and Communications—and the first thing I did was call them and get advice about people to talk to. I also knew some names from my “Aggie Hell” feature who had been on the side of change when I researched that story. And then it developed that I needed to talk to people in admissions, in agriculture, and in various other areas of the university. I probably talked to twenty faculty members, half a dozen administrators, and Gates and Steve Moore. I didn’t see much point in talking to students and alumni. The rebranding effort is not really on their radar screens.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this story?
PB: In one sense, nine years, going back to that first story in 1997. My first interview was with Gates and Steve Moore on July 28. Then came a monthlong hiatus, followed by a couple of pretty intense weeks of interviewing. I made six or seven day-trips to College Station. My last interview with Gates was in mid-September. After that, I had to read Gates’s book—an excellent history of the Cold War told from the CIA’s perspective—and write the story. So the actual time spent on the story was around four weeks.
texasmonthly.com: You mention that Aggies can seem cultish to outsiders. What was the most conspicuous act of Aggie-ism that you saw while working on this article?
PB: Aggies are normal people. They don’t go around acting “Aggie-ish.” I’m an avid reader of The Battalion, the school newspaper. Its opinion page fascinates me, because the letters to the editor reveal just how seriously Aggies take the values of spirit and character that A&M cherishes. I quote several of these letters in my article.
texasmonthly.com: The story mentions the reinvigorated condition of the Corps of Cadets. For the reader who doesn’t fully understand the Corps, can you further explain its significance at A&M?
PB: Do we have any readers who don’t fully understand the Corps? Or perhaps I should ask, Do we have any readers who do fully understand the Corps? The Corps has an ROTC program that can lead to a military commission. Until the mid-sixties, membership in the Corps was mandatory. Then it became voluntary after the first two years. Today, the Corps is strictly voluntary. Only 1,800 students of A&M’s total enrollment of around 45,000 are members of the Corps, and yet it is impossible to imagine A&M without a Corps. The Corps is the keeper of the flame, the fount of what makes A&M unique. Corps members know and carry out the traditions that mean so much to the university. When I wrote my previous story, in 2004, Corps membership had been declining for years, in part due to an overemphasis on spirit and an underemphasis on grades. This has turned around, and membership—and grades—are improving. I still hear of instances in which members of the Corps act as if they are more important than anybody else (for example, shoving “non-regs”—Aggiespeak for non-Corps students—out of the way so that they can get the prime positions in the lines between which Aggie football players run to get onto Kyle Field).
texasmonthly.com: You’ve written about A&M’s need to evolve before. This time around, will Bob Gates actually accomplish his ambitious plans for change?
PB: As CIA director, he made decisions that helped win the Cold War. If the Soviets couldn’t slow him down, neither will Aggies.
texasmonthly.com: The university faculty seems to appreciate Gates, but is Gates generally popular throughout the rest of Aggieland?
PB: I rode with him in the golf cart he uses to navigate around campus. Students knew who he was and greeted him as we passed, and he would respond. When we got to our destination, I noticed that in the back of the cart (where golf clubs would go) was a set of cattle horns whose tips had been severed and dangled from chains, bringing to life the line from the Aggie War Hymn”: “Saw Varsity’s horns off.” All of the faculty and administrators I talked to thought he hung the moon. And why not? He has brought in outstanding new professors by the hundreds, raised salaries, and provided money for graduate students.
texasmonthly.com: How did Gates’s CIA-influenced personality—which you describe in detail—affect your talks with him?
PB: For a man who led a super secret organization, Gates is not a secretive person. At CIA, he declassified the Cold War archives because he felt that the agency had done a great job and he thought that the public should know about it. (After he left, the archives were reclassified.) He has the same attitude about Texas A&M. He thinks that it is much, much better than its reputation and its clannishness has hidden that fact from the public. The branding campaign is all about explaining A&M to the rest of Texas in the way he wants A&M to be explained. He is forthcoming in interviews, but he knows how to stay on message. I tried to pry a couple of state secrets out of him about his recent trip to Iraq on behalf of President Bush and got only that the conditions American servicemen were living in were deplorable. But if he ever said “no comment” to me, I can’t recall it.